A paper published last month moved a hypothetical bioethics exercise toward an ethical emergency.
Researchers in China used a state-of-the-art technology that gives us the ability to edit mistakes in our DNA. The technology, with the eye-catching name CRISPR, has been used in human cells and mouse embryos. So far, CRISPR seems to be able to edit the genome correctly in some cells, some of the time. This particularly study, however, has been widely condemned because the researchers attempted to edit a known disease-causing gene in human embryos. The greatest discomfort comes from potentially changing germ cells (sperm and eggs), which carry DNA to the next generation.
Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, released a statement saying that the United States would not fund such research. "Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain,” Collins said. “These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent and a current lack of compelling medical applications."
The researchers were aware of these ethical problems. In the paper, they say that because ethical concerns preclude studies of gene editing in normal embryos, they decided to use embryos that had been made in an in vitro fertilization clinic, but were found to be defective. These eggs had been fertilized by two sperm, meaning they begin to grow into a very early embryo but will never be able to mature to birth.
I am not willing to write this work off as an attempt at “playing God.”
I think this research is both exciting and troubling because of the in-between nature of embryos. The work is exciting because it applies this new technology to human beings. I pray for a day when a 2-year-old can puff on an inhaler and have her mutated genome corrected using gene therapy, and this study takes a tiny step toward that goal. These embryos are more like that little girl than cells on a petri dish or a mouse can ever be. But that is also why this work is so troubling. Embryos are certainly at least the potential for life. The defective embryos used in this study make the life-versus-not-life debate even sharper. Are we comfortable doing experiments on human embryos as long as they can never grow up? If these experiments had been perfectly successful and we were now able to accurately edit mutations in the genome, would we really want to do so in an embryo? At what point can we be so certain of our results that we are willing to risk the well-being of this embryo, his or her children and all of their descendants throughout time?
I am not willing to write this work off as an attempt at “playing God.” I think that we each play God every time we decide we would rather do things our way than God’s way. When we put ourselves in charge of our health, our time and our resources, we put ourselves in God’s position. Instead, this is an example of using the technologies God has given us in hope of reducing suffering. I can see redemption in this work.
But it seems rushed, perhaps a good thing grasped for too soon, or the taking of more than has been freely given. When it comes to genome editing, I think there is still too much we don’t know for us to act responsibly. In this case we should be thankful for the conversation that has begun and develop policies that guide scientists so that we are better prepared the next time our hypotheticals become published science.